“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”
I promised my friend Brian a response to his post today about “The Foundations of Ethics” so here it is:
There are a couple of assertions Brian seems to make that I’d like to address:
- Ethics or ethical behavior are not supported by logic.
- Logic is the only or best method of determining the validity or truth of a concept.
For the moment let’s address the second point. As I talked about last week there are several ways human beings understand the truth of the universe, Faith and Science. It is my belief that a full understanding of the universe requires knowledge of both, and that the exclusion of one or the other is illogical. Thus an understanding that is only based on science, or its more elemental basis logic, is only a partial picture of the universe and what is “true”.
To clarify, my definition of truth in this case is something that enlightens or describes a property of the natural world, humans as individuals or society as a whole.
The existence of morals and ethics in our society and our individual nature has a source, or is an inherent property, otherwise it would not exist. Humans are understood to possess ethics and morals. You cannot prove simply by a man’s actions that he has made a decision based on a moral code, and yet we as a society understand that such codes exist, they are true. We may not have a logical basis for their existence, but we nonetheless must acknowledge that existence.
Similarly as part of a society we can decide that certain moral values are inherently good or inherently bad. Murder is felt by society as a whole to be evil, even if an extremist view of survival of the fittest might interpret murder as just another method of freeing up resources for one’s self. That murder is bad may not be able to be logically proved, but it is true nonetheless.
Furthermore, societal morality and ethical behavior is logical insofar as the goal of any society is to provide the most freedom for its individual members, while at the same time assuring that the society as whole is prosperous and growing (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness). A society in which murder is an acceptable form of behavior would have difficulty in forming trusting relationships and would face population pressure from attrition on the one side, and a lack of union on the other.
But what about individual morality and ethical behavior, which seem to be at the center of Brian’s argument.
One argument for moral behavior is Pascal’s wager. The basics are if God does not exist and I believe I am no worse off than if I had not believed. However, if God does exist than I am either damned or saved based on my belief so I might as well believe. This extends into the code of behavior that is commonly thought to be part of following God. However, I can acknowledge that this wager makes a couple of assumptions, that following God’s moral code does not deprive us of any real benefits from sin (i.e. sin isn’t really all that fun anyway).
In the current system, devoid of any faith based reason, personal morality might be best understood as a form of enlightened self interest. While as an individual I may personally have no qualms about murdering someone, I recognize that the personal consequences outweigh the potential benefits. Even in a case where this is not true, in the “let the world burn” mentality of The Joker, though there would seem to be no basis to logically prove that such behavior is wrong, a fuller understanding of the reactions of society would make such a moral framework incomplete and ill-informed.
And the moral framework of an “evil” personality might have a logical basis as well as an emotional truth basis. As we learn to understand the brain better we can see how chemical imbalances can cause a person to be more inclined toward a certain behavior, be it drink, gambling, or sociopathic behavior. The behavior has a measurable correlation and while it cannot be proved as yet, it can be logically inferred.
But as I said, science and logic are not the only methods of understanding truth. Sociopath’s are described as human beings who lack empathy, the quality that allows us to identify with others. We know that empathy exists to a certain degree in some people, and is completely lacking in others. Again, there seems to be a correlation between a lack of empathy and behavior which is “evil” such as killing people. Indeed, it may be empathy that allows us to think of others both in terms of the common good, as well as how our actions affect individuals. Our whole framework for ethical behavior is rooted in this truth. Yet again, we cannot logically prove that empathy exists, but we understand it to be true as an inherent or given property of our existence.
In summary, ethics are a property of humanity. Following an ethical code is beneficial to society and individuals. There are logical societal reasons for morality, and there are logical individual reasons for morality of individuals in the context of a greater society. Even if there is no logical basis for moral behavior, there are nonetheless properties inherent in us the guide us toward specific moral behavior. Thus while ethics is a truth that may not be able to be logically supported, it is one that is supported by faith and our very nature, and thus it is still true.
Thanks Brian for your argument and look forward to any response you might have!